True to form, I don’t really remember why I decided to make Viseu my first stop on my trip to Portugal this year. It’s likely it’s because it was logically positioned as a stop between Salamanca in Spain and Portugal’s north. Whatever the reason, I found myself there without knowing much about the city or what there was to do there.
Viseu lies in Portugal’s Centro region, far removed from most of the country’s hot spots. Only if you’re out exploring the country’s interior are you likely to stumble across it. If that’s the case though, then I’d highly suggest stopping in and taking a look about. It may be lacking the wow factor of mainstays like Porto and Lisbon, but there’s an earnest sense of culture and history here that is quite appealing.
The Story of Viseu
The history of the hilltop city of Viseu traces back to the Celts and the region’s conquest by the Romans. Thanks to trade routes crossing through the region, the area prospered and continued to do so after the Romans left. It soon after reached the statues of city and then fell under the back-and-forth of the Moors and Spanish. The centuries that followed mostly focused on the city as a religious centre, with the occasional siege or war.
Today, Viseu is the economic and geographic centre of the Viseu District. Although at times it can look and feel like little more than a town, Viseu is actually a city of almost 100,000 people. The city lacks much in the way of heavy industry, but is home to two universities, among other things.
Despite feeling removed from the Old Quarter, Republic Square very much features as a central point of Viseu. The large square is dotted with fountains and trees making it a welcoming meeting place, all surrounding the town hall building. Unlike other Portuguese cities where the squares feel wide open and spacious, Republic Square feels much more intimate and down to earth.
Over the road from Republic Square is the small but pristine Jardim das Mães. There’s no significance to the garden other than it being nice little spot. However, wedged between Republic Square and the Jardim das Mães gardens are some beautiful traditional tile mosaics, known as azulejos in Portuguese. I wanted to mention these now as you’ll be seeing more of them throughout this article.
If there’s a single major landmark in Viseu then it’s the city cathedral. Taking pride of place at the city’s highest point, Viseu Cathedral isn’t all that flashy, but important nonetheless. With its imposing towers, from afar the cathedral even looks almost like a fortress. Considered a national monument, the cathedral may date as far back as the 10th century, but it started to take its current shape in the 12th century. Throughout the building you can see various elements that have been introduced as it’s undergone renovations over the centuries.
While the foundation of the cathedral may look quite ordinary from the front, a quick walk behind the cathedral shows a different story. Here you’ll find immense granite boulders that the church has been built upon. Maybe it was just easier to use the stones than it was to move them.
Entry to the cathedral is made through a small cloister, lined with religious mosaics in the traditional style. Step into the cathedral and you find yourself in a dim interior. Let your eyes adjust and you’ll realise it’s quite an intriguingly designed space. The low light definitely adds a solemn feel to the cathedral though. The vaulted ceiling is a particular favourite of mine. Moving through to smaller chapels and rooms you’ll find beautiful wooden choir seats, painted ceilings and more colourful tiled walls. It’s not a large place to visit but I think it’s impactful.
Across Cathedral Square you’ll see the Rococoo elegance of the Misericordia Church. It may feature an understated exterior but that doesn’t lessen its elegance. Dating from the 18th century, the church shares the highest point in town with the cathedral and certainly looks the part. The interior isn’t quite a striking as the cathedral but it does host a beautiful organ in its small chapel.
Also on the Cathedral Square you’ll find the tourist information centre and a museum to local artist Grão Vasco. The museum is hosted in a remodelled palace and features paintings by the 15th century artist. From the square you are also able to spot the upper levels of the Passeio dos Cónegos, with its dignified porch lined with columns. Just another interesting architectural curiosity to admire on this square.
Most of the points of interest in Viseu are found in the city’s Old Quarter which sits in the town centre around its hill top. Throughout the Old Quarter you’ll find plenty of charming Renaissance and Baroque buildings that elevate the centre from just an ordinary city centre.
While you move through its streets going form one sight to the next, take some time to appreciate all this little details and buildings in this historic area. The small maze of narrow streets that cross the hillside below the Cathedral is particularly interesting to explore, thank to its old world feel.
Gates and City Walls
Here and there around Viseu you find reminders that it was once a walled city. Strongest of these are gates like the Porta do Soar, a fragment of the fortifications dating back to the 15th century. Further down hill you’ll also see small sections of the old city walls.
Igreja dos Terceiros de São Francisco
Over the road from Republic Square you’ll find the Igreja dos Terceiros de Sao Francisco church. Surrounded by greenery, the church backs onto a quiet park. Viseu isn’t exactly hectic but the tranquility on offer in the park is tangible nonetheless.
Just a quick interlude from the sights to share a few different tile patterns found throughout the city. Azulejos are one of the consistently noticeable elements you’ll find while visiting Portugal and Viseu has its fair share. They’re everywhere, from the cathedral to local houses to just random walls and fountains.
While the Old Quarter and the city centre sit around the highest point of Viseu, most of the city sits below it. This is where you’ll find the modern side to the city, but there’s still the occasional historic parts as well. While it’s not an onerous task really to climb up and down the hillside, if you need some help, you can take the small Viseu funicular.
Alongside its tile work, Portugal is earning a name for awesome street art and Viseu is no exception. As I wandered about these were just a few pieces I came across. No real need for explanation but the one below here is my favourite.
A bit of a surprise was stumbling across the Pavia River in the city’s north. It was a surprise because it doesn’t show up on Googlemaps at all. The Pavia fits into a trend I noticed throughout Portugal, with cities choosing to revamp their riverfronts in rather uneven ways. You look at one end of the river above and compare it to the photo below and you’ll see what I mean. It transitions from simple and traditional to vibrant and modern in almost no space. That’s not to say I don’t find the below part breathtaking and a perfect place to sit and unwind.
When it comes to getting to Viseu, your options are either car or bus. There is not train line to Viseu, actually making it the largest city on the Iberian peninsula without a train station. Viseu is not only connected to other regional towns and cities like Regua and Guarda, but there is a bus connection through to Salamanca in Spain. For more information on public transport in Portugal, take a look at my European Transport Guide.
My stay in Viseu was at the old fashioned and slightly removed Hotel Bela Vista. In truth it was fine and reasonably priced but there are definitely options that are more central. Having stayed two nights in Viseu I can’t really recommend more than one. You can see most of the city sights in a day, but I guess you could always look at day trips as well. One potential place to visit for a day trip is Lamego and its incredible staircase.
If you were to visit Viseu, where would you head first? Which do you like better, the azulejos or the street art? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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